Independence Day: A Dispatch from Edinburgh
By Benjamin MorrisDecember 9, 2012
THE PATH TO THE SUMMIT starts gradually, a gentle incline just a stone’s throw from the center of town. Wrapping around the side of the mountain, it ascends and levels off, offers a brief dip before jutting upwards, the rock-and-gravel path replaced by a slick set of steps carved out of slate. By the end — nearly an hour’s walk from where the path began — the steps have been superseded by the stones, boulders over which one must clamber, their narrow passageways cut deep into the rock. Even the most athletic find the final portion a challenge; climbing to the top of Arthur’s Seat is not for the faint of heart.
But the view when you arrive: the whole of the city spread out before you, the Pentland Hills to your left, their bumpy spine catching the light and the shadows from the clouds scudding overhead, the Firth of Forth and the North Sea to your right, sending wave after wave of weather into the city, as many as a dozen different systems a day, and directly across, the castle, perched atop its own volcanic rock, mirroring the one on which you stand. Everything else before you is the city: its dense, cobble-strewn streets, its centuries of history layered on top of one another like a millefeuille, its thousands of lights that, at dusk or at dawn — the two best times to climb to the top of the Seat — twinkle in a hazy, burnt-orange and yellowish glow that recalls the days of carbide and gas lighting, an era when much of the city was built. The path may be steep, lacking handrails and largely unmarked, but it is worth it.
Edinburgh, and Scotland more generally, has been much on view in recent years. Not just because of its summer arts festival, now a global event attracting over a million visitors annually, or the success of Scottish athletes on the world stage, Andy Murray and Chris Hoy taking top honors this past year at the Olympics. Not even because of its conflicts with other powers such as when it released Abelbaset al-Megrahi, the mastermind behind the Lockerbie bombing, to the former Libyan government on the grounds of state compassion towards a terminally ill patient. Events such as these have thrust this small nation of approximately five million people back into the limelight in a way that documents of popular culture such as Trainspotting and Braveheart once did. But less known to those outside the United Kingdom is that the Scots are seriously looking to pursue their independence from the UK, and that for the first time since the Act of Union was signed in 1707, they might just be in a position to do so.
As any self-respecting Scot will immediately counter, the situation is more complicated than that. “We are a disputatious nation,” Alan Taylor, the editor of the Scottish Review of Books wrote in its inaugural issue. “There is something in our psyche, something deeply rooted in our souls, something in the pugnacious northern air, that propels us to take issue, dispute, query, pull apart, debate, criticize…” Even a Scot who supports independence is apt to point out that it is by no means a project of the entire country; that opinion remains firmly divided; that the consequences have not been fully explored; that it is the wish of one political party more than any other (albeit the one in power); that all manner of issues and questions must be resolved before it becomes possible, much less probable; that the legality of such a move has only barely begun to be considered; that no one knows anything for sure; that this, that that, that this. The list goes on and on.
But the case nevertheless remains — as every leader of every party knows, most of all the brilliant, hard-charging leader of the ruling Scottish National Party, Alex Salmond — that conditions have aligned more so now than at any other point in Scotland’s modern history. Over the past twenty years in particular, the stars in the British night sky — social, historical, economic, and political — have aligned to form the outlines of a constellation, a constellation that resembles a Saltire flag. How has this happened? What factors have led to this possibility, and how, as well, have they escaped wider notice? What would an independent Scotland look like, and what consequences would it entail not just for its own citizens and government, but for its partners, allies, industries, and even — in the era of changing styles of conflict and resource struggle — its potential foes?
To answer these questions, it is helpful to place the prospect of an independent Scotland in historical context. It’s worth observing that the past several hundred years have seen a general progression from larger countries and empires to smaller ones; with the breakup of the Prussian, Ottoman, British, Soviet, and continental European (French, Belgian, Dutch, Spanish, and Yugoslav) conglomerates, nation-states have split off, carved themselves out, staged coups, waged wars, held rebellions, and democratically seceded at a rate that, in their heyday, would have been thought unthinkable. Even in the years since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the trend has shown no signs of stopping: East Timor, Montenegro, Kosovo, and South Sudan have all achieved independence, and as Frank Jacobs and Parag Khanna recently observed in the New York Times, depending on how their respective conflicts resolve the same may eventually be true of the Georgian republics, Azawad, and Somaliland. Even what the scholar Michael Keating has called ‘sub-state nationalisms’ as exemplified by Quebec in Canada and the Basque Country and Catalonia in Spain can be grouped onto this list.
Countries, then, are growing in number, dividing and multiplying in ways that cell biologists of the future may one day be able to explain, and Scotland might very well be among the next. Crucially, however, Scotland would not be a new nation per se, but rather a formerly independent country (whose dates ran from roughly 843-1707AD) reasserting its ancestral identity. The number of modern nations can claim an unbroken heritage dating back over a thousand years is in the minority compared to those who cannot, even those whose histories were in some way interrupted; the argument that it would simply pick back up where it left off rather than break away from its parent or sister state is a powerful piece of leverage.
“Unbroken,” is, of course, an overstatement: taking the long view, the Act of Union was one of the best things that ever happened to Scotland, a fact only the most contrarian of Taylor’s countrymen would deny. And precisely this, ironically, has equipped the country for independence: yielding a fully developed modern infrastructure. With the overwhelming majority of its political, legal, physical, medical, educational, and commercial systems already established, an independent Scotland would likely suffer far fewer of the growing pains that countries like Somaliland or Azawad, or Palestine necessarily would. Bureaucratic reorganization would be necessary, but that, proponents argue, is just about all. After all, the Parliament is already in place: it has been serving the country, making and passing laws, for over a decade.
The history of empire is also the history of independence movements from it, and Great Britain is one of history’s chief illustrations to the rule. Beginning with the American Revolution, the following two centuries saw first the waxing and then the waning of its imperial fortunes, from its peak in 1919 when the sun famously never set on British soil to the modern day when nearly all of its former colonies (India, Sudan, Kenya, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, the West Indies, Belize, and even symbolic and structural parts of Canada) have achieved self-rule, most remarkably peaceful in their transitions. Exceptions remain, of course — tensions still flare in Northern Ireland, even after the transformation of Sinn Fein and the IRA into a political, not military, body — but the overall trend since decolonization that began in earnest in the 1950s has been towards stable transitions. The winds of change, as Harold Macmillan famously named the process in 1960, continue to blow.
For Americans — well-versed in our own independence movements, even as we observe the 150th anniversary of a failed one — the historical echoes resound loud and long. The “special relationship” we enjoy with the United Kingdom, born of common ideals, interests, and principles and forged through wars both hot and cold, is strong even despite the economic troubles in Europe. Our histories are as intertwined as hydrogen and oxygen in water; what we often overlook, however, is the extent to which Scottish history in particular informs American history, and vice versa. The majority of the Scots who were evicted from their homes during the Highland Clearances of the 1700s (punishment, still tender, for the failed Jacobite rebellion against the Crown, and insurance against its ever happening again) were packed on boats and shipped overseas to the new American colonies where they settled in the Appalachian mountains and along the eastern seaboard, composing one of the largest and most influential communities in the fledgling country for decades to come. More than a third of the signers of the Declaration of Independence had Scottish roots —Teddy Roosevelt argued in his history of the War of Independence that without the Scots’ contribution, the revolution never would have gotten off the ground — and all other contributions aside, Americans owe the Scots the origins of bluegrass music and whiskey distillation. For which, it goes without saying, may they ever be blessed.
This is not the first time that the question of independence has come up. The first attempt toward devolution in modern times, in 1979, succeeded in the popular vote but was declared void on a last-minute technicality, a massive controversy at the time. The next decade proved bleak for the movement, supporters of devolution dispirited not just by the defeat but by the grim conditions under Margaret Thatcher’s government, namely, the headlong decline in manufacturing and shipbuilding jobs that had always been a core component of Scotland’s economy and identity. The discovery, too, of North Sea oil in the 1980s cemented more than anything else the country’s role within the greater UK, as Robert Alan Jamieson’s novel Thin Wealth depicts. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s, with the implosion of the Conservative party (then under John Major) and the prospect of a resurgent center-left government in Westminster — headed, of course, by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the popularly sober economist from the Kingdom of Fife — that hopes began to rise again. Supporters had not completely given up in the meantime — in the 1992 general election, the then-marginal SNP famously ran election billboards that read ‘elect us and we’ll resign’ — it was just that a new administration was slightly more sympathetic to the cause.
And so it was. With the advent of “couchside diplomacy” and “Cool Britannia,” the move towards a more relaxed administrative system in the four British countries feels, in hindsight, almost like a precursor to the situation today. When the Scotland Act (1998) was passed, it was greeted with equal parts incredulity, relief, and a curious blend of apprehension and resentment: some afraid that this “experiment” might not work out, and others angry that Westminster had not gone far enough. Instead of specifying what the new government (then called the Scottish Executive) was permitted to do, the Act instead listed all the powers that Britain had reserved: in short, nearly all of them. About the only real power the Act granted was for the provision of the Parliament to draft and pass bills of its own, bills which would still be subject to Royal (aka centralized) assent — an innovation some saw as patronizing, the predominantly English government still paying the majority of the country’s bills. Even so, the Scots used the Act to quickly move forward and build their own institutions, including, as a matter of first priority, their Parliament. While their physical home, the Enric Miralles-designed building at the foot of the Royal Mile (symbolically next to Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s residence in country), would not be completed until 2004, the Scots wasted no time in reasserting their right to self-rule — as longtime SNP member Winnie Ewing observed upon the opening of the debating chamber for the first time: “The Scottish Parliament,” she said in May 1999, “adjourned on the 25th day of March in the year 1707, is hereby reconvened."
Adjourned, for almost three hundred years — as though they had simply stepped out for tea.
How are we where we are today? Even now, observers look on the present political landscape in surprise, if not mild shock, the gains of the nationalist movement since the Parliament reopened staggeringly swift by any measure. Different factors account for this: a renewed sense of Scottish national identity (which devolution partly authored); a determined and plucky leadership that saw an opportunity; a changing political landscape not just in Scotland (which already saw the collapse of one nationalist party, the Scottish Socialist Party) but in the country as a whole; and perhaps, most importantly of all, luck. In 2007, an upset election brought the SNP to power by a single seat — not unlike the French election of 2002 that, due to first-round turmoil, nearly brought the right-wing Jean-Marie Le Pen to power — an opportunity that Salmond, now leader of the government, saw as his chance to prove to the Scots (and to the Brits) that he and the SNP had what it takes to govern.
They would only have a few short years to prove themselves, during which the UK would see not just the recession but a change in government “down south” from Labour (by then under Gordon Brown) to a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. Hardly the easiest of times for a change in leadership in any case, but by nearly all accounts the SNP got it right. Not only did they press successfully for more devolved and efficient control of local services, but they handled complex legislation regarding taxes, infrastructure, and health in a way that showed them not just willing but able to take on the thorniest issues affecting the country. Despite challenges from the three opposition parties, the SNP was so widely regarded by the time the next elections came around in 2011 that the Scots voted decisively to return them to power, this time with a clear majority. And, it seemed, with a mandate. Not necessarily for independence — voters will go to the box for a variety of reasons, not necessarily every plank on the platform — but it would have been difficult to imagine Salmond and the newly-emboldened party dreaming, on election night, of anything else.
That was last year. Since then, a different campaign has begun, and in earnest. In May of this year, two high-profile movements unfurled their banners: the Yes Scotland movement, heralded by the SNP and leading public figures such as Sean Connery, Brian Cox, and Poet Laureate Liz Lochhead, and the Better Together movement, bringing in heavyweights such as Alastair Darling and Charles Kennedy. The latter immediately countered point-for-point in events and news media all the arguments the independence lobby was offering. One Scottish professor of political science I spoke to has described the tactics of the Better Together camp as “fears, smears, and jeers” — planting uncertainties in the minds of the swing electorate, tarring their opponents with accusations and innuendo, and ridiculing the whole idea that a nation of five million people would be better off without the fiscal, military, and political safety net of its other 55 million counterparts.
What is notable about the debate thus far is that the two camps refuse to share the same concepts. This is absolutely deliberate. For the Better Together partners even to refer to Scottish independence is to have already yielded a certain amount of ground: to admit that there are structures, agencies, and policies — not to mention sources of revenue and taxation — that could, with some effort, be retooled for a system that will no longer support them or their interests (at least not directly). The importance of this concession cannot be overstated: on it hinges the entire idea of the union of nations. “What I am worried about,” an English friend told me this summer, “is not an independent Scotland. I’m worried that this would mean the breakup of the United Kingdom” (emphases mine). This is exactly the fear that the Better Together camp seeks to reinforce, and the narrative that the SNP seeks to avoid. To spell independence in this context means reminding voters that their choice involves dismantling a three-hundred year old union even as it means gaining the opportunity to determine their own future.
In a speech at the Festival of Politics earlier this year, during which questions of independence and union were at the forefront, Gordon Brown delivered an impassioned, no-notes salvo on the virtues of the British social safety net, which he argued had its origins in Enlightenment-era mercantile Scotland. Calling the independence debate a conversation that had strayed too far, too fast, into process and procedure — as opposed to remaining grounded in principles — he urged a serious reconsideration of the imbalances of wealth, security, and social mobility that would result were this decision to be rushed into unawares. The difference may seem semantic — even ironic — but it is key. Those in the Better Together camp repeatedly underscore the primacy of this notion of principle, even as supporters of independence, like mechanics eager to dismantle and rebuild an automotive engine, are already debating the finer points of what kind of gasket to use.
The fact is, the vast majority of procedural aspects have yet to be worked out. At present, most revolve around three major themes: identity, security, and diplomacy. None are fully extricable from the others, of course; each has its constituents, its ramifications, its economic logics, and its respective ministries. And in the weeks between this article being written and being published, aspects of these themes may well have changed: politics moves swiftly, but these politics move at light-speed. Even so, to get a handle on what voters in the referendum confront, it is possible — in brief, and with the caveat that it is always more complicated than this — to cover each one in turn.
The first concerns who those voters are. Scottish national identity is defined along a variety of axes, and while a sixth-generation cattle farmer from Aberdeen named Sinclair may not lose much sleep over the issue, a first-generation family from south-east Asia or the Middle East may have yet to feel fully or even partially Scottish — even if they own businesses in Scotland or have raised their children in Scottish state schools. The question is wider than that, of course – the idea of Britishness, never perfectly defined, today most often arises in association with the former empire, and still has the power to unsettle in everyday conversation. Even were it resolved, a very real dissent about the nature of the debate persists: as Dr. Padmini Ray Murray, lecturer at the University of Stirling, told me, the notion of Scottish citizenship is “revolving right now around being not-English, about negation, rather than about a future identity.”
Critically, that identity is fluid in language but fixed in law. While over half of all Scots still self-identify as more British than Scottish (six out of ten, according to a 2012 poll by the think-tank British Future), Britishness alone is not sufficient to ensure the right to vote. Rather, in a radical move, the SNP has proposed that eligibility to vote in the referendum is to be determined by legal residency, not nationality. Thus an American student studying at the University of Dundee for her doctorate, for instance, would be just as eligible as beef-farmer Sinclair to cast a ballot, so long as all her papers were in order. But the Mahfouz refugee family from Egypt, or the Mumbari brothers from Ghana, who have been living as asylum-seekers in Glasgow for the past decade while waiting for confirmation of their legal status, would not. Nor, ironically, would the rest of the country — the 55 million English, Welsh, or northern Irish residents of the union being sundered.
This position suggests that Scottishness is open to anyone who wants legitimately to live, work, and “make a contribution to Scottish society,” as supporters often put it. Kilts, tartans, and accents are downplayed as markers of Scottish identity, and full sway is given to ideals of community, tolerance, and respect for those who share postcodes or local pubs in common. The gambit is shrewd: it allows the SNP to pack the booths with those who want to stay and build that society, and as well, to reiterate the claim that Scotland isn’t yet “full up” — that the size of the country permits it to expand by an additional two to three million people before its physical and urban geography reaches capacity. Where will these people come from? At present, no one is saying with any detail — but with the implicit offer of Scottish (and European, but that’s a different story) citizenship as part of the bargain, it’s hard not to see how refugee and migrant communities around the world would not jump at the chance for a real and fresh start. Especially when detention centers and waiting facilities ‘down south’ are full to overflowing, thanks to stricter quotas imposed by the Conservatives.
Those refugees come from increasingly unstable regions (North Africa and the Middle East), and the issue of how Scotland would not just manage but secure its borders has been present on the table from day one. This is where the second major concern lies: with its security. With its armed forces, such as the Black Watch and the Highland Regiments currently integrated into the British military structure, a measure of disentangling would have to be in order. While relocating Scottish troops to Scottish bases poses less of a problem logistically, as one military chaplain told me, other key installations in the country such as the Trident nuclear missile defense system would have to be renegotiated, and Scotland would have to draw up its own combat-ready fighting force and make its own contributions to peacekeeping units in the UN, NATO, and the EU. More cogently, it would need to form a navy and an air force, which it currently lacks separate from British high command. The issue is not the prospect of invasion from neighboring states, either from ‘down south’ or from across the North Sea, but terrorism, border control, and smuggling, and critically, energy security.
Not only does Scotland hold three of the UK’s nuclear power plants as well as the North Sea oil platforms and refineries around Shetland and Aberdeen, but it also manufactures the largest amount of the UK’s renewable energy by a country mile: 120 existing wind farms compared with 80 in England, 37 in Wales, and 27 in Northern Ireland, and, as the Independent newspaper reported in July, nearly as many scheduled to be built in Scotland alone as the other three countries combined. With further assets in hydro and wind — solar not so much, though there’s no need to insult a desert for its lack of rain — the SNP argue these sources serve as a foundation on which it could build the country’s future energy security platform. It would also, however, take out the other British countries at the knees. Removing Scotland’s share of renewable energy would set England, Wales, and Northern Ireland back years in their efforts to meet their national and regional targets, and how both sides would handle that impact is as yet unclear.
This consideration brings to the fore the third major issue: diplomacy, namely, its relationships with all its neighbors, starting with those south of the border. Though it is widely assumed that Scotland would have a “special relationship” with the UK à la that which the US and UK currently enjoy, the disentangling process brings up a host of issues which are just as fundamental to the shared British identity. Currently under debate are such issues as the monarchy (whether Scotland would keep the Queen as the head of state), monetary policy (whether Scotland would keep the pound sterling, effectively allowing a foreign country to set its interest rates, or whether it would take the plunge and join the Euro, never a riskier decision than now) and even the status of that border itself, historically in flux, as Norman MacCaig’s poem “Crossing the Border” once observed: “I sit with my back to the future, watching / time pouring away into the past. I sit, helplessly / lugged backwards / through the Debatable Lands of history …”
These questions, cursorily examined as they are, address just the next-door neighbors. Not only would these need to be resolved, and soon, but so would the questions regarding their neighbors across the seas, including membership in NATO and the UN, the establishment of embassies and consulates, and the status of the approximately 14,000 bilateral and multilateral treaties that it has as part of the UK with countries around the world. None of this has yet been determined, though in due time it would: statecraft is a necessity as much as an art, both for the state to find its own footing, and to reassure its skittish electorate.
With so many questions in play, it is easy to see why each camp has their work cut out: the pro-independence camp to articulate their vision of how this would all work swiftly and clearly, and the Better Together camp to sow enough confusion and uncertainty to prevent the message from taking root. The next two years will revolve around all these debates and more. This is not to suggest there is no roadmap for the process, however: that the SNP has to figure out what its state would look like all alone. On the contrary: the socialist democracies of Scandinavia have been touted as promising models, with their heavy state spending on education and health, their commitment to linked regional defense, their increasingly green economies, and their shared — if at times contentious — cultural and social heritage. Also apt, perhaps, is another small state, Slovenia: the first breakaway state from the former Yugoslav Republic, a country of approximately the same size, possessive about its unique language, natural beauty, and unusually high (though welcome) regard for its poets. After all, both France Prešeren and Robert Burns feature proudly on their country’s currency.
None of this, however, will be on the table if the SNP doesn’t accomplish certain tasks. The first is in hand: ask the right question. For much of this past summer, the two sides haggled over the language of the ballot, and whether there would be a third option for further devolved powers (called ‘devolution-max’) to accompany the stark choice the referendum presents. In October, however, the two camps agreed that the ballot would be yes-or-no, asking, essentially, “Do you agree Scotland should become an independent nation?” More risk, but more reward: if the ballot fails, these converging windows of opportunity may not open again for years, but if it succeeds, the SNP mandate will undoubtedly be in hand. (History suggests this decision was wise: the mistake Québécois nationalists made in their first, and most successful to date, referendum on independence was to put an overly legalistic question on the ballot, causing confusion among the electorate.)
In uncertain times, the starkness of the choice may benefit the Better Together camp. But the SNP still has a powerful card up their sleeve: the chance to capitalize on the opportunity the date provides. The date of the referendum, autumn 2014, is significant for two reasons: one from the past, the other from the present. As the 700-year anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn, a Scottish victory over the English, the year carries nationalist associations that will be hard to shed and harder to resist foregrounding. Anniversaries have powerful overtones; the chance to repeat history but to do so in more lasting triumph is a chance that the independence movement sees as integral to stoking the ancestral pride that they believe will put them over the top. That, combined with the 2014 Commonwealth Games being held in Glasgow, which will provoke a wave of attention towards Scotland, and the fact that the next two years will allow the SNP to galvanize young Scots casting their ballots for the first time (and who may be more eager to assert their national identity than other demographic groups) — all this adds to a sense of building momentum. A year in which nationalist sentiment is already primed well before the voting booths are open may leave voters more sympathetic to possibilities than worried about obstacles. And with anti-Westminster feeling already in play due to its mishandling of economic affairs and the recession, and the mixed (and publically fraying) performance of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, voters may be more likely to choose to go their own way, and to extricate themselves from leaders who have proven unable to govern as they had promised.
Will it work? Incredibly, the answer is: maybe. With polls this summer indicating roughly one-third of eligible voters definitively supporting independence, another third definitively opposing it, and the final third undecided or insufficiently informed about the issues, it could, at this point, go either way. As with another recent election, also finely tuned, various strategies abound within each camp that cater to these undecided voters (one suggests winning Glasgow is all the SNP needs), but the most remarkable fact of all is how many there still are, and how much time the SNP has to make the case. Should they succeed, the UK can expect a massive reshaping of the national political landscape: the Parliament in Westminster would have to be reorganized as all MPs for Scottish counties would leave (Scottish-born MPs who represented English or Welsh constituencies would stay), as would most of the national bodies and offices currently established north of the border. The sign on Chambers Street that reads “Crown Court,” for instance, might well lose its first word.
But one irony of democratic independence movements — as opposed to coups — is that once they have been achieved, the victorious party loses its electoral platform. How will the SNP rebrand itself, and what will Salmond’s post-independence policy goals be? Thus far quiet on this front, the SNP will have to outline a handful of areas of improvement, consolidation, and targets for the coming term. But this is also to ask, as above: what future for devolution and independence movements in Wales and Northern Ireland, each of which already have their own parliaments? Victory would probably not set off similar movements in the former, but it may well reignite the latter. And what future for the political makeup of England, and each of the three main parties – Labour, Liberal Democrats, and Conservative – how will each of those be reshaped? Andrew Wilson, former member of the SNP, indicated during the Edinburgh International Book Festival this summer that Scottish Labour would simply become Labour within Scotland, and so forth, but that the opportunity to reshape the internal political landscape would be sign, he argued, of a healthy and mature democracy.
Thistles, like roses, have thorns, and the realistic obstacles and objections are legion. The most basic arguments are also the strongest: that voters are afraid of change, the recession will prohibit any major upheaval, and while it sounds good in theory, the separation would be more like a nasty divorce than an amicable split. Disentangling a 300-year-old union will be horribly complicated, and it will be the job of the Better Together camp to make sure that the electorate keeps this front-and-center in their minds. And of those third of voters who are convinced, convinced only begins to describe it: as one taxi driver told me this past August, “There’s aboot as much chance a’ that [independence] as o’ Jesus fallin’ off the cross!” The referendum — and it is only that, a referendum, not the act of declaring independence itself, nor the act of placing the SNP directly into power — may well fail, leaving the country with the status quo, and the Scottish Parliament conducting business as usual.
Even so, over the next two years we can expect a variety of tactics from each campaign, at the same time as they clarify their policy issues, develop their brands, and adjust their tone to reach their target demographics. Electoral politics, is, of course, a business, and both sides have something to sell. The real question is, who in the country will have the most to gain, and who around the world. Those of us here in the States, especially those of us with Scottish ancestry, may well have the opportunity to apply for a new passport by the end of the decade – potentially one with European citizenship attached. Highland games celebrated across America already attest to this country’s longstanding love of Scottish culture; how many Camerons, McAlisters, and McCormicks across America would not jump at the opportunity?
Standing at the top of Arthur’s Seat, gazing down onto the city below, it’s hard not to envision the possibilities. Edinburgh is a city famed for its dualities — Protestant versus Catholic, Old Town versus New Town, merchant class versus working class, landlubbers and hill-walkers versus sailors coming into the docks at Leith — dualities that find their echoes in those that now define the national debate. Idealism versus pessimism, opportunity versus caution, procedure versus principle, hope versus fear, republicanism versus monarchism, ambition versus entrenchment, and even, as Sir Walter Scott, that conflicted old Scottish loyalist to the Union, so famously put it, ‘the heart versus the head.’
The story is the story of all these tensions and more, most profoundly, the question of whether a nation past can constitute a nation future, and what of its spirit in those intervening years will have survived, and what will have been transformed. With a full third of the country undecided, those who seek to revive that spirit have no time to lose in making their case — a point that was brought home in a place far from the top of a mountain: the small fishing village of Stromness in the Orkney Islands, off the far northern coast. One of the remotest points in the UK, the Orkneys are a microcosm of British and Scottish history: former home of Neolithic, Viking, and Norse peoples; former departure point for the Hudson Bay Trading Company; site of the sinking of the HMS Royal Oak by a German U-boat; and home of two of Britain’s most famous contemporary artists, poet and novelist George Mackay Brown, and composer Peter Maxwell Davies. A region where many of the concerns that grip the modern UK (historic landscapes, national versus regional identities, delicate diplomatic considerations) converge, these days it is enmeshed in debates over renewable energy. Its gales are legendary — hurricane-force winds sweep the islands on a regular basis, thanks to its location at the intersection of three powerful ocean currents — and the tidal basins that lie between the islands are a goldmine for hydroelectric turbines, components for which were stacked in huge arrays not far from the Stromness Hotel, where I was staying this past June.
It was the solstice, and we had just visited the Ring of Brodgar, a Neolithic stone circle that dates to 2500 BCE. Back in town, having a few pints at one of the local pubs, I stepped outside and met a young man standing next to the door, having a smoke. Warmed by the liquid flames, I struck up a conversation, asking what his take was on the whole issue. A native of Stromness, now a truck driver elsewhere on the island, he laughed, and suggested that if Scotland were to go independent, the Orkneys — which view themselves as set apart from the mainland — would go first, just to make a point. “We’ve got quite the territorial army to defend ourselves,” he joked, “all 26 of us.”
Pressed again on the issue, however, he thought about it a moment longer. “Aye, it’s important,” he said at last. “It’s my country — it’s my future. But honestly, I cannae [can’t] be bothered.”
And with that, he finished his cigarette and stepped back inside the pub.
Thanks to the following individuals for their input into this article: Dr Mairi McFadyen, Dr Nasar Meer, Dr Innes Kennedy, Herbert Kerrigan QC, Dr Padmini Ray Murray, Paula Williams, Lesley Riddoch, Andrew Wilson, and Kevin Pringle.
A native of Mississippi, Benjamin Morris is a writer and researcher whose work – poetry, fiction, plays, and essays – appears in publications in the United States and Europe.
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